After 2,200 years of sightings, speculation, and hoopla, scientists finally got a close-up look at Halley’s Comet in 1986, when an armada of five space probes descended upon the comet. In the year 2061, it is making another visit, and this time the Global Space Organization wants to send two ships with human crews to take a peek. For some, the curiosity goes beyond what the public knows, for in 1986, one little space probe saw something unearthly. An unearthly little tidbit that’s been kept a secret for 76 years. The crews of the two ships (including two teenage Space Cadet observers) also stumble upon a little discovery of their own while examining Halley’s Comet, a little discovery that sends them on a wild and unexpected ride through time and space.
CHARCOLE BLACK and potato shaped, the ancient icy snowball plummeted slowly through the immense void of space. It had already swung around the blistering hot sun and was headed back to the outermost frontier of our solar system. The sun’s massive gravity was gently tugging on it, putting on the gravitational brakes, ready to pull it back. It will be back, as it has been many times before, but that whole process will take another 76 years.
Gritty vapor surrounded the old relic of time and space in a huge incandescent cloud. With the hot sun beating down on the dark murky surface, jagged cracks ripped across its crusty nine-by-six mile surface, causing geysers of water vapor to jettison out, creating its long stretching tail. It was spewing out more than sixteen tons of material every second, which will be its eventual demise, in about 253,308 years.
For the last 2,200 years, perhaps more, the tumbling iceberg had been observed by humans, causing fear, panic, and excitement. For 2,200 years, the human race could only observe the cosmic spectacle from afar. In actuality though, no one had ever really seen the actual comet. The shy visitor had always been hiding in the glowing spherical cocoon of dusty water-rich comet exhaust. But not this time! Not in 1986! The human race had conquered Earth’s gravity, they had conquered the moon, and now they were going to conquer Halley’s Comet.
By March 13th, the tumbling iceberg already had close encounters with the first of a few spaceships, part of an armada of ships sent from Earth. These ships were inquisitive little probes trying to steal its long hidden secrets. The Russian probe Vega 1 was the first such invader, gingerly taking a peak at 5,500 miles out. If that wasn’t bad enough, its twin sister, Vega 2, approached from a different trajectory and dared to get 500 miles closer three days later, with its camera snapping away. The Japanese were at least a little more polite, the Sakigake kept its distance at 4.3 million miles, and Suisei didn’t get any closer than 94,000 miles – neither had a camera.
But then, there was the European spacecraft Giotto, the fifth visitor from that big blue rock, the third from the sun. It was the most adventurous; it was the one that dared to take a close-up peek at the tumbling jet-black snowball, with strange geysers spouting from cracks in its crust. Giotto’s camera was feverously taking pictures, sending them back to the Earth at the speed of light; a 13-minute journey. Plunging ahead at a passing velocity greater than 42 miles every second, it drew closer and closer to the heavenly comet; being scrubbed by dust and thudded with cometary nuggets on its way.
Little Giotto got closer than Vega 1; it got closer than Vega 2. It closed in on 3000 miles out, then 25 seconds later it was only 2000 miles out. Its little camera, and its bevy of scientific equipment, was joyously peeking under Halley’s skirt for the first time ever. Giotto was collecting a wealth of data that was going to make scientists and astronomers have goose bumps for years to come. Then, at 1000 miles out, that is when Giotto’s spying camera saw it. That’s when it saw the object.
The first picture was just a silhouette with Halley glowing brightly behind it. The second picture was much closer and it was much more obvious that it wasn’t gas vapor, it wasn’t dust, and it wasn’t video noise. The object wasn’t a chunk of ice that broke free either; this object was too sleek, too curvaceous. This object wasn’t created by nature. This object was manmade. But maybe “man” made isn’t the right term in this case. All the other probes were long gone by this time and no other ones were on their way. It wasn’t from Earth. Besides, it was huge; it was bigger than a jumbo jet. All of the scientists viewing the images instantly thought of the old UFO pictures from the 1950’s, as that was exactly what it looked like. A saucer shaped object with a dome on top.
At the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, Horst Keller, the leader of the camera team, instantly cut the video feed per protocol. He called over Gerhard Schwehm, the lead mission scientist, to take a look. Gerhard instantly instructed Horst, and the two other scientists who saw the pictures, to not speak of the images until instructed further. The further instruction they received, only a few hours later, was to never speak of the pictures, ever, not to anyone. The public was informed that Giotto went blind for a bit, after being hit by comet debris, causing the antenna to skew away from Earth. This was certainly feasible, and totally believable, and is what was written in the history books for the next 76 years.
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